Mandaean Religion

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MANDAEAN RELIGION . The religion of the Mandaeans (from manda, "knowledge") is a self-contained, unique system belonging in the general stratum of the Gnosticism of late antiquity. Thus Mandaeism shows affinities with Judaism and Christianity. For geographical reasons, it also exhibits certain early influences from the Iranian religious milieu. The Mandaeans live, as their ancestors did, along the rivers and waterways of southern Iraq and Khuzistan, Iran. Known by their neighbors as Subbi (baptizers), they form a Gnostic baptist community.

The Mandaeans can be traced to the second or third century of the common era. A hypothesis based on their language and literature indicates that they emigrated, during the first centuries of the common era, from the Jordan Valley area eastward to the environs of Haran, on the border between present-day Turkey and Syria, and finally to southern Babylonia. According to their text Haran Gawaita (Inner Haran), they fled persecution and traveled east under the protection of one of the three Parthian kings named Ardban who ruled from the early first century to 227 ce.

An East Aramaic dialect, the Mandaean language nevertheless contains West Syrian linguistic elements that point to the probability of a migration from west to east. Examples of these are yardna (running water; also designates the river Jordan), sba (baptize), kushta (truth, ritual handshake), manda (knowledge), and nasuraiia (observant ones). The last term (in English, Nasoraeans), also used by early Christians, refers primarily to the Mandaean priests. According to Rudolf Macuch, the date 271272 ce may be argued as that appearing, in the hand of a Mandaean copyist, in the colophon of a hymnal (qulasta ), published in The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (1959). This colophon may well be the oldest extant Mandaean text. Macuch also dates Mandaean script on coins from what is now Luristan and Khuzistan as from the second and third centuries ce. Inscriptions on leather and lead strips, on clay tablets, and on magical bowls (labeled "magical" because they are used on a "folk religion" level) belong largely to the younger sources.

The Mandaean codex and scroll literature is found in the voluminous book Ginza, which is divided into Right Ginza and Left Ginza. It is a collection of mythological, revelatory, hortatory, and hymnic material. The Right Ginza contains generally cosmological, "this worldly" prose material, whereas the Left Ginza, much of it in verse, centers on the "otherworldly" fate of the soul. Symbolism of "right" and "left" is pervasive in Mandaeism, but in the case of the Ginza titles these terms are puzzling, for the right is usually connected to the beyond and the left to the earthly world. The Mandaean Book of John contains a variety of myths and legends. The Canonical Prayerbook includes hymns, liturgies, and instructions for priests. Central mythical and ritual material in this work and in the Ginza dates from the third and fourth centuries ce. Comments, exegeses, and instructions for rituals attested in The Canonical Prayerbook are in the texts The Thousand and Twelve Questions, The Original Great World, The Original Small World, and The Coronation of the Great Shishlam. The Mandaeans also have illustrated scrolls, such as The Scroll of Abatur and The Scroll of the Rivers, and a book on astrology, The Book of the Zodiac. Much of this literature was probably collected and edited after the seventh century ce, although most of the material is older.

Traditionally hostile to both Judaism and Christianity, the Mandaeans were confronted with the Islamic conquest in the seventh century ce. In response the Mandaean leaders declared the Ginza to be their holy scripture and proclaimed John the Baptist as the Mandaean prophet, since a holy book and a prophet were the Islamic requirements for recognition as a "People of the Book" (i.e., Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans), exempt from forcible conversion. The Mandaeans endured hardships under Islamic rule, but they were generally left in peace. Never aspiring to secular power or political expansion, the traditionally endogamous Mandaeans survived. The group was threatened by an outbreak of cholera in 1831 that eliminated the priestly class, but new priests were drawn from the ranks of literate laymen. Again as secularization set in during the twentieth century, scholars considered Mandaean culture to be in danger of extinction; however, a cultural, if not traditionally religious, revival seems to be taking hold. In Iraq two new baptismal pools and a new mandi (a clay and reed hut used by priests) were constructed in the 1970s. Mandaeans translated into Arabic Ethel S. Drower's The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, first published in 1937. In 1972 these translators compiled a Mandaean catechism for the benefit of the laity, who formerly were not allowed even to touch Mandaean books.

In bulk the Mandaean corpus exceeds anything transmitted from other Gnostic traditions, except perhaps that of Manichaeism. Relationships to other forms of Gnosticism are difficult to trace, but in 1949 Torgny Säve-Söderbergh demonstrated that the Manichaean Psalms of Thomas, dating from 250 to 275 ce, depend on a Mandaean original. In addition the long-held view that Mani had his roots in Mandaeism has been refuted by the discovery of the Cologne Mani Codex. However, the Syrian Odes of Solomon and a number of the Nag Hammadi tractates do show correspondences with Mandaean ideas.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Portuguese missionaries were among the first to bring Mandaean manuscripts out of the Orient. Thinking they had found the "Christians of Saint John," a misnomer for the Mandaeans, the missionaries were eager to trace the Mandaeans back to their putative origins. The possibilities of such a Christian connection contributed to the heyday of studies in Mandaeism in the first half of the twentieth century. Debates on Mandaeism's relationship to early Christianity have continued, although the question of a pre-Christian Mandaeism no longer holds the fascination it once did. Comparative issues are still central, but Mandaeism is also studied for its own sake. The relationship between the mythological and the cultic components remains a crucial issue, for in Mandaeism one faces a gnosis closely aligned with cultic practices. Kurt Rudolph in particular has sought to unravel the historical development of the Mandaean mythology and cult and to reconstruct the sequence of the variegated segments in the sources.


Mandaeism testifies to a basic framework of dualism in which diametrically opposed entities clash but also intertwine and to some extent recognize one another's claims. Good and evil, light and darkness, soul and matter vie for control from the very inception of the world. Mandaean mythological speculations center on the preexistent Lightworld (the upper, "heavenly" realm), on the creation of the earth and of human beings, and on the soul's journey back to its Lightworld origin. The primary Lightworld entity is "the Great Life" (also called by various other names), who resides with his consort "Treasure of Life" and numerous Lightbeings (ʿutria ), the prototypes of earthly priests. The ʿutria gradually become involved in the creation, an entanglement causing their degradation and accrual of their sins. One of them, Ptahil, the pathetically unsuccessful creator of the earthly world and of human beings, fails to make Adam stand upright, for the creature is wholly material. A soul is broughtsometimes reluctantlyfrom the Lightworld, making Adam complete. The soul not only causes erect posture but functions as a revealer, instructing Adam and his wife Hawwa in nasiruta, the totality of Mandaean gnosis and cult.

Adam is taught to free his soul and spirit to return to the Lightworld, leaving the body behind. Of the three human constituents, ruha (spirit) is the middle, ambiguous component torn between body and soul. There is also a personified ruha, at times called Ruha d-Qudsha (holy spirit), who was originally fetched from the underworld prior to the creation of earth and human beings. By necessity Ptahil enters into fateful cooperation with this personified spirit, who has a stake in the human being. Ruha also enlists the planets and the zodiac spirits, her children, to help her. Together they demonize time and space. Arranging a noisy party to blot out the soul's revelatory voice in Adam, Ruha and her cohorts merely manage to frighten Adam, reawakening his quest for salvation beyond the earth (Right Ginza, 3).

In addition to the ʿutria Yushamin, Abatur, and Ptahil, there are others less stained by involvement in the lower realms. Manda d-Hiia (knowledge of life) and his son-brother Hibil are Lightworld envoys, revealers, and saviors busily shuttling between the Lightworld and the earth. Anosh-Utra, who imitates and competes with Jesus, and Shitil, the biblical Seth, are two less-central messengers. Shitil appears both as one of the ʿutria and as the first son of Adam. In the latter capacity Shitil dies vicariously for his father, who at the ripe age of one thousand years refuses to die. As a reward for his sacrifice, Shitil ascends and becomes the pure soul against which all human souls are weighed in the scales of Abatur on the threshold of the Lightworld.

Between Earth and the Lightworld the matarata, "purgatories" or "heavenly hells," provide tests and tribulations for ascending souls and spirits. The matarata depicted in The Scroll of Abatur present an inverted parallel to the underworlds mapped by Hibil before the creation of the earth. Demons, including some of the degraded ʿutria, serve as purgatory keepers, performing the thankless task of testing and punishing. Depending on the realm in which they appear, ʿutria and other divine beings may show themselves as good or evil. Abatur has been demoted from rama (elevated) to "lord of the scales." He must carry out his task until the end of time, though complaining bitterly (Book of John, 7072).

Nonbelievers do not escape the matarata. Jesus, an apostate Mandaean, is doomedunlike his mother Miriai, who converted from Judaism to Mandaeism, thus serving as the prototype of the west-to-east migrating Mandaean. In the Book of John 30 Jesus seeks baptism from John the Baptist, who at first hesitates, knowing Jesus' wicked intentions. John relents owing to a command from Abatur, but at the moment of baptism Ruha makes the sign of the cross over the Jordan, which immediately loses its luster, taking on many colorsa bad omen.


Among the Mandaeans, repeated baptism (masbuta ) takes place on Sundays and special festival days. Two small rites of ablution, rishama and tamasha, are performed by the individual Mandaean and, unlike the masbuta, require no priest. At baptism the male candidates, clothed in white, and female candidates, who wear a black cloak over the white garment, line up on the riverbank. One at a time, each descends into the water and immerses himself or herself three times, whereupon the priest, in full ritual garb, submerges him or her thrice again. As the candidates crouch in the water, each receives a triple sign on the forehead with water and drinks three handfuls of water. Investiture with a tiny myrtle wreatha symbol of spirit and of lifefollows. Baptisms completed, the candidates sit on the riverbank. Now each is anointed on the forehead with sesame oil and partakes in a meal of bread (pihta ) and water (mambuha ). Finally, each baptized person exchanges a ritual handshake (kushta ) with the priest. The entire ceremony is accompanied throughout by set prayers, formulas, and hymns uttered by the priest.

The laity undergo baptism as often as they wish. Moreover baptism is required on specific occasions: at marriage, after childbirth (for a woman), and as close to the moment of death as possible. Water not only cleanses sins and other impurities; it also represents the Lightworld as reflected in the earthly world. Masbuta anticipates and in some sense parallels the death mass, the masiqta (raising up), a complicated, lengthy, and essentially secret ritual celebrated for the dead and shielded from the view of the laity. Because baptismal river water symbolizes the Lightworld, the masbuta can be said to constitute a "horizontal" masiqta : immersion in water here on earth prepares for ascension at life's end.

The masiqta conveys spirit and soul from the dead body into the Lightworld. Three days after burial the "seals" put on the grave are broken, for spirit and soul are now ascending on their perilous journey through the matarata to the Lightworld. On this third day several priests celebrate the masiqta. In handling objects that symbolize the ascending spirit and soul, the priests' aim is threefold: to join spirit and soul; to create a new, Lightworld body for this joined entity; and to incorporate the new body into the community of deceased Mandaeans living in the Lightworld.

The majority of the symbolic objects in the masiqta are foodstuffs that feed the departed and act as creation material. Food links the living to the dead, maintaining the laufa, the connection between earth and the Lightworld. The priests personify the ascending spirit and soul, act as parents for the new body, and impersonate Lightbeings. As mediators priests are Lightbeings on earth, carrying out on earth rituals that have their models in the Lightworld. Ganzibra (treasurer) and tarmida (from talmid, "disciple") are the two surviving priestly ranks, each of which requires special initiation ceremonies; the supreme office of the rishama (head of the people) has been extinct since the mid-nineteenth century. Constituting the "Right," the Lightworld, the priests are complemented by the laity, who belong to the "Left," the material world. Neither can do without the other; the laity is required as witnesses for public rituals carried out by priests. This arrangement furnishes one among many examples of the carefully tempered dualism prevalent in the religion. The dualism and the relationship between myth and ritual remain among the most urgent issues confronting scholarship on Mandaeism, as do the editing and translating of unpublished Mandaean manuscripts.

History of Study

As far as is known, the first Westerner to come into contact with the Mandaeans was the monk Ricoldo da Montecroce in around 1290. The story of the encounter is set out in a kind of travel diary, an Itinerarium or The Book of Travels in Eastern Parts, written in his later years in the quiet of the convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The Mandaeans are defined as a kind of "monstrous" spiritual reality in a merciless way, even if the description is thorough. The Mandaeans are not mentioned again until 1555, by Jesuit missionaries in Mesopotamia, this time confused with the Christians of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist (Lupieri [2002] describes the contacts between the missionaries and the Mandaean community, in which their presumed "Christian" origin is finally recognized).

At the beginning of the seventeenth century European knowledge of Mandaeanism expanded as a result of the accounts of travelers, such as the Roman aristocrat Pietro Della Valle and missionaries like Basilio di San Francesco, a Portuguese Carmelite who applied himself to the conversion of the Mandaeans with great fervor, founding the Catholic mission at Basra among others. The work of Basilio was continued by another Carmelite, Ignatius a Jesu, who was responsible for a kind of handbook on the conversion of the Mandaeans with the long title Narratio originum, rituum, et errorum Christianorum Sancti Ioannis (1652). Just like previous missionaries, Ignatius was convinced that the Mandaeans had originally or in the past been Christians and thus their conversion really amounted to a return to the faith from which they had lapsed.

The interpretation of Mandaeanism offered by Ignatius was initially favorably received in Rome, but at the beginning of the eighteenth century it was replaced by a radical critical reappraisal by two Maronite priests, Abraham Ecchellensis and Joseph Simeon Assemani. Ecchellensis in particular was the first European to note the Gnostic dualistic nature of Mandaeism.

From the end of the eighteenth century European and especially German academic scholarship played a decisive part. Among the many scholars of theology, history, and Oriental languages who were interested in Mandaeism, an important position was occupied by the Swedish scholar Matthias Norberg. Between 1815 and 1816 Norberg published the Codex Nasaraeus, complete with relevant lexical material, but namely an erroneous transcription of the entire Ginza in Syriac alphabet. Following the fantastic stories of the Maronite Germano Conti di Aleppo, Norberg identified the Nusairi in an Islamic brotherhood of Lebanon (the text and theory are, from a scientific point of view, unreliable). Although criticized by subsequent scholars, the work of Norberg marks a significant stage, allowing an even wider audience to have access to Mandaean texts. He paved the way for Orientalists such as Heinrich Petermann, the scholar responsible for beginning the scientific study of Mandaeism, above all the Mandaean edition of the Ginza (1867), still used as a reference work in studies of Mandaean religion.

Among the more serious writing on the subject, the works of two German Orientalists, Theodore Nöldeke and Mark Lidzbarski, are extremely important. In 1875 the former compiled an essential Mandaean grammar, and the latter published and translated the most important texts. Setting Mandaeism in the broader context of the comparative history of religion may be dated to Wilhelm Brandt, followed by Richard Reitzenstein, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and latterly Kurt Rudolph, Edwin Yamauchi, and Jorunn J. Buckley. With the exception of Yamauchi, their studies have proved that Mandaean literature provides significant evidence of a Gnostic religion that flourished in late antiquity but with roots that presumably go back to a more remote, pre-Christian period. The Mandaeans are thus the last living witnesses of this religion and are important in the religious history of late antiquity. Intense speculation has sought to ascribe their origins in the history of early Christianity by identifying them as descendants of an ancient group of followers of John the Baptist. This point of view, as seen earlier, was already shared by the seventeenth-century Portuguese missionaries in Iraq; hence the long-standing practice of calling the Mandaeans "the Christians of Saint John." Even if it is not possible to support this theory, one can definitely state that Mandaean literature has preserved in its oldest writings evidence of the milieu, in the Orient, in which early Christianity developed, evidence that can be used to interpret certain New Testament writings (especially Johannine texts). Studies such as those by Viggo Schou-Pedersen, Eric Segelberg, Geo Widengren, Rudolf Macuch, and Kurt Rudolph have confirmed this.

Since the nineteenth century there have been numerous different attempts to understand surviving Mandaean oral tradition by greater understanding of their texts, including those by the German Orientalist Heinrich Petermann and the French vice consul of Mosul Nicolas Siouffi; in 1880 the latter wrote one of the most extensive and detailed accounts of Mandaeism to date. However, the extraordinary undertaking of collecting these sources was the work of the English scholar Lady Ethel Stefana Drower, the wife of the British consul in Baghdad. She used her abilities and indefatigable energy to record in precise detail the daily expressions of religion and worship of the religious community, and she obtained a series of previously unknown texts, available only to Mandaean priests, and published them in part. Thanks to the work of Drower scholars are thus in a position to obtain a much more accurate impression of the Mandaeans than was previously possible, especially as regards their worship and certain "secret" teachings. Along with this the works of Macuch have cast a new and detailed light on the development of the Mandaic language. He has been responsible for research and study on the Neo-Mandaic dialect as it is still spoken by the Mandaeans of Iran (particularly in Khuzistan). For a long time the lack of a dictionary of the Mandaean language was keenly felt, but one was published in 1963, compiled by Drower and Macuch, who made use of the works and largely unpublished notes of Mark Lidzbarski.

Modern studies on Mandaean religion have been boosted by two important conferences at Harvard in 1999 and Oxford in 2002. One should also note the dissemination of Mandaean culture by Majid Fandi Al-Mubaraki, a Mandaean who has published a variety of literary texts, including lesser ones, through his small publishing company. Philologists who have worked on Neo-Mandaic literature include the Italians Fabrizio A. Pennacchietti and his pupil Roberta Borghero.

Origins and Influences

A chronology of Mandaic literature is difficult because of the lack of historical evidence. It is possible to date only several parts of the Ginza and certain magical texts (magic bowls) with greater accuracy to the third and fourth centuries ce (according to Macuch, the second and third centuries ce). Their existence may be inferred from the doctrinal content of the main texts. Theodore bar Koni, a seventh-century ce Syrian heresiologist who wrote Ketaba d-ʾeskolyon or Scholion, in which he describes the "Dostheans" or Mandaeans, quotes several passages from the Ginza.

There are two possible approaches that may be adopted when studying this subject: to examine contemporary non-Mandaic evidence (Gnostic or Manichaean, for example) or to carry out internal textual analysis, studying the themes and literary style, examining the particular doctrinal contents of the text to establish a history of the tradition. The first method has been adopted by the Swedish Egyptologist Torgny Säve-Söderbergh, for example, who has shown through a comparison of parallel texts that part of a Mandaean hymnology already existed in the third century ce.

The Mandaeans consider their religion a direct divine emanation, created directly from the World of Light. Nonetheless certain clues may provide an answer to the question of their origin. Several texts have preserved a mythical geographical tradition describing a persecution of the community (or 360 "followers," tarmide) in Jerusalem by the Jews under the guidance of Adonai, Ruha, and their seven sons (the Planets), after which Jerusalem was destroyed as a punishment. In a quasi-historical text, the Haran Gawaita, it is mentioned that the Nasurai stayed in the "Mountain of the Maddai" (Tura d-Madai) or "inner Harran," where they took refuge under a king called Ardban (Artabanus), fleeing from the ruling Jews. The precise identity of this Artabanus is uncertain: Macuch has identified him with the Parthian king Artabanus III or Artabanus IV or V. Generally it seems that this may be placed within the context of a tradition describing in a mythical or legendary manner the penetration (perhaps only partial) of the group into territory that was then Iranian (between Harran and Nisibi or Media) during the late Parthian period (first or second century ce). Further on the same text describes the establishment of a community at Baghdad or in Mesopotamia and the Mandaeans' subsequent fortunes under the Sassanids.

This tradition also includes the events in Jerusalem, which here take place on the Euphrates, and the Mandaean legend of John the Baptist (Iahia, Iuhana), who is here called "the Prophet of the Kushta" (Truth) and "the Messenger of the King of Light." John is also mentioned in other texts, and the Mandaeans regard him as one of their own, representing him as their "Prophet" to Muslims. He is described as opposing Christ. As mentioned above, it has previously been inferred that the Mandaeans were descendants of the followers of John the Baptist. However, this theory has not been fully proven. Thus it is not possible to demonstrate that the Mandaeans possess their own independent tradition dating back to that period. It is clear that they had embraced and given a Mandaean interpretation to legends from heretical Christian (that is, Gnostic) circles, preserving the opposition between Jesus and John the Baptist. Furthermore John the Baptist is not a particularly central figure in Mandaean tradition.

A relationship between Mandaic traditions and Aramaic (i.e. Syro-Palestinian) Christianity can be established via stylistic analysis, especially of Johannine writings. Mandaean literature does not give any reason to believe that this religious community had been Christian during some earlier period, considering the extremely vehement hostility shown toward Christianity as a whole (Christ is regarded in an entirely negative light). On the other hand, based upon a large number of traditional and lexical indications and notwithstanding the harsh anti-Jewish polemic (Moses is regarded as the prophet of the evil "spirit" Ruha and Adonai as a false, evil god), the Jewish origin of this group appears, according to Macuch, to be incontrovertible. Another passage in the Haran Gawaita states that until the coming of Christ the Mandaeans "loved Lord Adonai." This could be a heterodox Jewish sect that, like the Essenes, openly held different opinions from official Judaism, embracing powerful Iranian and Gnostic influences and thus gradually isolating themselves. This clearly distinct positionin regard to the Jewish wars of liberationled to the persecution of the community and ultimately to their emigration from the region of the Jordan (and indeed Jordan, that is, Yardna, is what they call the waters of baptism) to the east, first to Harran and the mountainous region of Media (Tura d-Madai) and then to the southern part of Mesopotamia (Caracene, Maisan).

The exodus from the west must have occurred during the second century ce at the latest, because certain Mesopotamian and Iranian-Parthian elements imply a rather lengthy period in the east. The theory is corroborated by links with trans-Jordan baptist sects (including with the one at Qumran) and with so-called Syrian Gnosis (The Odes of Solomon, the Sethians, the Naassenes, Acts of Thomas ), also from certain surprising ancient Syrian lexical components in their language and mythology. It has been thought that Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, had absorbed Mandaean elements in his later works. The Manichaean Psalms of Thomas make clear the links, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, existing between the two religions. On the other hand, in the ninth book of the Right Ginza there is a dispute with the followers of Mar Mani.

The long-lasting settlement in the lands at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates (the Shatt al-ʿArab) also brought about new developments within the community, such as the introduction of the Frash-Ziwa (the shining Euphrates) in place of the Jordan, the later development of ritual worship and religious hierarchy, the evolution of other Iranian ideas, and clearly also the re-creation in the new homeland of the situation in Palestine during the early days of the sect. There is also an increasing contrast with Christianity and the Christian missionary church, especially the Byzantine part. Christ "the Roman" is one who oppresses the community, whom it must be on its guard against.

In contrast to what occurred during the Arsacid period, under whom the sect enjoyed a tranquil existence (as shown by king Artabanus in the legendary story in the Haran Gawaita ), relations with the Sassanids were not good. The Haran Gawaita talks of a considerable reduction in the number of Mandaean temples during that period. It is known only that under Shāpūr I (242273 ce) there took place a persecution of foreign religions, including that of the Nasoreans (Kirdir inscription). Mandaean documents repeatedly mention curses against Muammad and his religion (especially in colophons). Islam also instigated other persecutions, despite the tolerance accorded to the "Sabaeans." Thus the persecuted community withdrew to more and more inaccessible marsh regions of southern Iraq, where it continues to exist, alongside other Aramaic Christian groups, dreaming about and longing for their own particular past, convinced that wickedness will soon disappear from this world.

The fundamental importance of the Mandaean religion lies in the fact that in its original essentials it may be considered as an expressionorganized in a baptismal communityof Syrian Mesopotamian Gnosis, a clearly defined entity, a peculiar Aramaic social and linguistic unit, something that has not been proven for any Gnostic school. Its rich traditions offer the opportunity of studying this religious model of late antiquity with its typically Oriental origins, which by this time had disappeared from every other point of view, and in this way gaining some idea of the religious nature and inner life of a Gnostic community.

This is the generally accepted reconstruction of scholars (Rudolph is among the most influential). Yet clear links with the Gospel of John, the Odes of Solomon, and several Gnostic texts leave open the possibility that Mandaean traditions date back to a pre-Christian age, a theory that at the beginning of the twentieth century enthralled leading scholars, such as Reitzenstein or Bultmann, who formulated a major philological historiographical construct based upon a theory of this kind.

The oldest evidence of Mandaic writing comes from second and third century ce Caracene coinage. According to Macuch, these reveal surprising similarities with the Elymean inscriptions at Tang-e Sarwak in Khuzistan. On the other hand, these indicate knowledge of the Nabatean alphabet. Macuch was completely convinced that the ancient Mandaeans should be regarded as an important link between the Nabatean and Elymean cultures, namely that they had brought the script with them from the west and had passed it on to the Elymeans. Clearly this assumes that the Mandaeans effectively either "invented" or transmitted this writing system. Furthermore Macuch maintained that the Mandaeans should be associated with Aramean penetration of Khuzistan and Caracene. If so the Mandaeans should no longer be regarded as isolated and self-contained but rather as an important means by which Aramean culture was diffused throughout the Orient as well as linked to the development of the Middle-Persian Pahlavi script. The Iranian theory of Widengren is based upon such speculation. According to the distinguished Swedish scholar, the Mandaean religion is the result of the development of three main religious environments that are at times clearly distinguishable. The first, the Judeo-Semitic and Western, constitutes the Palestinian milieu in which Mandaeism was born and developed. The essentially Jewish aspects of Mandaean Gnosis, including the figure of John the Baptist, in fact come from this layer, which is the oldest. The Mesopotamian component is next, made up of archaic Babylonian traditional elements, recognizable in the large number of Akkadian linguistic loan-words as well as in a large number of mythical and ritual themes, not least the sacred kingship. Finally, there is the Iranian part, which is imbued with religious ideas and concepts most probably taken from the doctrines of the Mazdean-Zurvanite Magi of Media Atropatene, in particular beliefs concerning human redemption expressed in the dogma of Savior Saved may be derived from these.

Such ideas, originating from an Iranian milieu, would define the characteristics of Mandaeism in terms of Gnosticism and dualism. Thus it is likely that Mani, the founder of the "Religion of Light," grew in a community of baptists linked to the Mandaeans, the Elchasaites. Given what has been said so far, one must therefore agree with Widengren that "without a detailed understanding of Mandaic language and literature, it is impossible to have a genuine and precise concept of ancient Gnosticism" (Handbuch der Orientalistik, VIII, 1961, p. 98). It is not necessary to suppose a Palestinian Judeo-Semitic milieu, because Jewish communities were present in Mesopotamia since at least the sixth century bce.

See Also

Ablutions; Baptism; Ginza; Gnosticism, article on Gnosticism from Its Origins to the Middle Ages; Manda d'Hiia; Manichaeism, overview article.


Two Mandaean collections were published in German under the editorship of Mark Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer (Giessen, 1915; reprint, Berlin, 1966) and Ginzā: Der Schatz; Oder, Das grosse Buch der Mandäer (Göttingen, Germany, 1925, 1978). Ethel S. Drower, trans., The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden, 1959), contains a great number of Mandaean hymns and prayers. Representative excerpts from these three texts (as well as from other Mandaean sources) are in Werner Foerster, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, vol. 2, Coptic and Mandean Sources, edited by Robert M. Wilson (Oxford, 1974), which includes an introduction by Kurt Rudolph. The classical eyewitness account of Mandaean religious life is Ethel S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford, 1937; reprint, Leiden, Netherlands, 1962). Kurt Rudolph, Die Mandäer, vol. 1, Prolegomena: Das Mandäerproblem, vol. 2, Der Kult (Göttingen, Germany, 19601961), is a comprehensive treatment of Mandaeism. The bibliography in this work should be supplemented by that in Rudolf Macuch, Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic (Berlin, 1965). A list of works on Mandaeism after 1965 is in Macuch, ed., Zur Sprache und Literatur der Mandäer, Studia Mandaica I (Berlin, 1976).

The history of Mandaic historiography (especially their origins) is dealt with in Edmondo Lupieri, The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2002). New mythological studies, along with primary ethnographic evidence, are in the valuable work by Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People (New York, 2002). Buckley also translated the Mandaic Diwan malkuta ʿlaita : The Scroll of Exalted Kingship (New Haven, Conn., 1993). Relations with the Sabeans have been investigated by Şinasi Gündüz, The Knowledge of Life (Oxford, 1994). The subject of magic and so-called magic bowls is dealt with in Shaul Shaked, "Bagdana, King of the Demons, and Other Iranian Terms in Babylonian Aramaic Magic," in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 2425, ser. 2, Hommages et Opera minora, 1011 (Leiden, 1985), pp. 511525; J. B. Segal and Erica C. D. Hunter, Catalogue of the Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum (London, 2000); and Marco Moriggi, La lingua delle coppe magiche siriache (Florence, 2004). For individual mythological, cosmological, and ritual topics, see the various studies collected in Geo Widengren, Der Mandäismus (Darmstadt, Germany, 1982); Edwin M. Yamauchi, Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins (Cambridge, Mass., 1970); Eric Segelberg, Gnostica Mandaica Liturgica (Uppsala, Sweden, 1990); Waldemar Sundberg, Kushta: A Monograph on a Principal Word in Mandaean Texts, vol. 1, The Descending Knowledge, vol. 2, The Ascending Soul (Lund, Sweden, 19931994); Majella Franzmann, "Living Water: Mediating Element in Mandaean Myth and Ritual," Numen 36 (1990): 156172; D. Kruisheer, "Theodore Bar Koni's Ketaba d-ʾeskolyon as a Source for the Study of Early Mandaeism," Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 33 (1993): 151169; Kurt Rudolph, "Die Mändaer heute: Ein Zwischenbilanz ihrer Erforschung und ihres Wandels in der Gegenwart," Zeitschrif für Religionsgeschichte 94 (1994): 161184; Erica C. D. Hunter, "Aramaic-Speaking Communities of Sasanid Mesopotamia," Aram 7 (1995): 319335; Ezio Albrile, "Il 'Bianco Monte' dei Magi: La montagna paradisiaca nel sincretismo iranico-mesopotamico," Annali dell'Istituto Orientale di Napoli 57 (1997): 145161; and Ezio Albrile, "I Magi e la 'Madre celeste,'" Antonianum 75 (2000): 311332. The proceedings of the conference on the Mandaeans held at Harvard University in June 1999 were published in Aram 1112 (19992000): 197331.

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley (1987)

Ezio Albrile (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis